The Artist and the Church

So what are the sermons of the artists? As I’ve been reading great novels, I see the writers, at least, as field reporters sent to cover the human condition. The look, they observe and they have the talent to craft out words to save and share those observations. This is very important. This is why most of the Bible is made up of storytelling and poetry. It has great value and it does not have to come from the hand of a Christian to have value. As I’ve said before, we were humans first . . . then Christians. –The Christian Monist

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an artist, an artist who’s a Christian (as opposed to a “Christian artist”). Recently I had the privilege of having a great conversation with some missional students about art and being an artist. Also, I have a friend who I have been having an on-going conversation about her life as a writer because she feels she has to hide what she does (as a horror writer) from her church community.

So what is the responsibility of artists, those communicators of ideas who transmit them to the (pop) culture at large? What does it mean to realize your gift and push into the kingdom with it? How do we express our theology in our writing or other works of art? On the flip side, how should the church shepherd its artists? Are there issues of particular struggle for artists (for example, balancing the need to do marketing and promotion against striving FOR humility and AGAINST idolatry)? For all the talk of culture wars, when all is said and done, most pundits miss one simple, though obvious, point: To impact the culture, impact the artists.

What does it mean to be an artist? It’s an artist’s job to ask questions. It’s an artist’s job to push lines. There a difference between being a writer vs. liking to write, being a dancer vs. liking to dance, or being a photographer vs. liking to take pictures. It’s not a matter of “artist vs. hack” or “professional vs. hobbyist”. I know that I have to write. I have to put pen to page to still “the voices” and the overwhelming urge to express what’s in me. It defines me. What makes us artists, what gives us our unique voice, is how we come at life and the world. It’s what makes many be seen or treated as “weirdos”. We can often be prickly, moody, and have isolationist tendencies, after all, we create in caves and tend to be introverts (just like there are lies artists often buy into about themselves, like how they “need” to be misunderstood or what they produce won’t be art).

Artists give up their lives. We cut open our emotional veins and bleed all over the page for our readers entertainment. There is a certain amount of fearlessness and abandonment as we put ourselves out there, exposing ourselves.* Revealing or at least speaking from our woundedness. We trust ourselves to the process, going where the journey takes us, no matter how scary. And sometimes it hurts. It reminds me of this recent conversation between me and a friend:

C: Why is it that it’s often folks with woundedness and rejection issues who end up with vocations –like acting and writing– where rejection is part of the process? Some weird need to relive our abandonment trauma? Just asking.

M: those vocations become their therapy…

C: True, the art part is definitely therapy. I get to put all my neurosis on paper in a form more elegant than mere rant and weepy telephone calls or emails. But, the dealing with agents, auditions, editors, critics. Aaargh. Wish there was another way to have our healing say….without going through all that.

M: on the flip side, carole, we’re paid for sharing our neuroses!

C: So true, M. And we certainly help to heal all those souls who come up to us and say how we’ve “said exactly what they always wanted to say.”

Sometimes it’s hard for an artist to find a place within the church. We are often unsure of how to “do” our craft within the church, struggling with being true to our art and to our faith. This is partly due to the church’s distrust of art. Somewhere along the line, unless it was “Christian” music or “Christian” books (which means, for example, me being a “Christian” horror writer), it was dismissed. Strictly branded in the “garbage in/garbage out” school of thought. This type of Christian ghetto mentality sprang from trying to figure out what it means to be in the world but not of it; but led to us becoming so dualistic in our thinking that certainly fine art was so insignificant and unspiritual. In practice, however, when the word “Christian” is reduced/used as an adjective (or worse, a marketing label), usually it’s the first red flag that we’re already off mission.

A way to erase this false dichotomy between sacred and secular is to, in all things, think redemptively, and let the renewing your mind be in finding God at work in the culture around us. I am reminded of how the Apostle Paul could walk around Athens, a city full of idols, and still find Jesus (Acts 17). Engage the artist, engage the audience of that artist, and let your words and deeds be salted with grace. What would our spiritual life be like without art? A shriveled up and dry experience, devoid of any sense of transcendence and beauty. I’m reminded of some words I read in The Christian Monist blog not too long ago:

When you hear the sound of voices of another heart telling the story of love (romantic) or sorrow, heartbreak and loss . . . you know that you are real too. You know that you are not alone. You sense a community of hearts who have all loved, lost and wondered if there is a better way for the world to live. You know that you are human.

We come from the same Creator, created in His image, with his creative Spirit, so it’s all right to love art for art’s sake. We can listen to beautiful music and feel God’s presence. We can become lost in a painting and let it wordlessly speak to us. We can get transported by a story and learn lessons about ourselves. That’s the role of the artist, to remind us of our humanity and to remind us of the story we find ourselves in.

*And as I was recently reminded, it’s one thing for the artist to put themselves out there, entirely another for their spouse. They still have privacy rights and will send out corrective memos when we go too far.


(This post was part of a Synchroblog I am part of. Here are the other links. Enjoy!)

    Checking Back In (aka The Discipline of Being Present)

    What we call “at least being there” as quality spouse or family time, they see as either just the back of our heads or just our eyes above the cover of our laptops as we write … I’ve promised to try to do better at being present with her and the family, learning to be in the moment and raising the curtain. It’s funny how any of us can be at home yet functionally absent, focused on whatever side project or work we’re doing.

    As I reflect on that blog, I’m wrestling with how much of a multi-tasking society we are. We’re in a hurry to be busy, because as we all know, busyness is a direct reflection of how important we are. I know personally, if I can kill two birds with one stone—say listening to research for a novel while at work or getting some typing done while the kids watch television—I’m going to go it. What we often forget are the relational consequences of such things.

    Part of it is because we don’t multi-task nearly as well as we think we do. Our concentration is divided, our focus is split, and things inevitably fall through the cracks. Part of it is we can’t multi-task relationships. When people are multi-tasked, they are getting the short thrift of things. I’ll tell you right now, if I were to get an iPhone, I would be checking out of many relationships. I’d be playing on that thing constantly. A date with my wife would be filled with me checking my Facebook. Time with my kids would be interrupted by my Twitter. Hanging out with friends would involve a lot of me checking my e-mail and miscellaneous surfing that I would justify by calling work.

    Not that I’m much better without an iPhone. Sometimes it’s the side project that I’m working on or one last bit of work I have to finish an important phone call to squeeze in. There’s always something adding to the noise of our world. Not that a consequence of our technological ability to socially network is our increasing difficulty to socialize in the moment , but the sum total of the constant noise of our lives transforms and impacts our relationships. No one gets our full attention. I think of how we sometimes don’t see God through our multi-tasking haze. God does not hide and if He seems that way, it’s because He’s hidden in plain sight. We fail to see him because we fail to see Him or are otherwise attentive. We fail to be present with Him.

    Is it our short attention spans? We just that bored? That impatient? That discontent? Or are we finding affirmation in our online noise, the re-tweets and the comments?

    Nouwen believed that caring means, first of all, to be present with each other, ‘offering one’s own vulnerable self to others as a source of healing.’ One does not need to be useful as much as to be present.

    We all want to believe that we are fully present with one another, yet I think of how many times our friends sat around with one another texting and IM-ing rather than being with the people in the very room with them. The first step to being a source of healing to your family and your friends is to be present, presenting your vulnerable self (think of it as a “living sacrifice”).

    This is where we are. So during our family time, we have an interruption ban. No cell phones. No computers. As we attempt to be fully present with one another. If our families and friends are the most important people in the world to us, the least we can do is focus on each other as if they really are.

    Forbearing One Another (or, This Discipline Sucks)

    Once again I’m trying to figure out an aspect of my faith, in this case wrestling with what is supposed to be a simple command: “Forbear one another”. So I’m trying to ask myself a few simple questions:

    What does it mean to forbear (bear with or give slack to) one another and what does it look like in your life?

    What does it mean to give people room and space to be who they are?

    What does it mean to give people room and space to become who they are?

    What does it mean to give people room and space to contribute and belong despite imperfections?

    Who are you called to bear with?

    It’s easy to like people who like you or are like you. The true test of your faith comes in loving your enemies. The annoying. The “extra grace people”. And think of how good God is at forgiving, putting up with, looking past the mistakes of, and loving people … and how we’re called to reciprocate it by forbearing one another.

    So I’m stuck with this simple prayer: “Lord, teach me to love.”

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    Profound Simplicity – A Few Questions

    “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” –Psalms 16:8

    It’s easy for us to slip into autopilot and call it our lives. The busyness of our routines blinding us, even if it’s good work. We still need to find that quiet place, that Sabbath, when we can direct most of our thoughts toward God and abide in him. So a few questions:

    -Where do you find yourself most aware of God?
    -What do you think is your greatest distraction?
    -What hinders you from noticing God in the every day?
    -Has there been a point in your life when God seemed to communicate with you?
    -What was it like? How did you respond to it?

    “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” –Psalms 16:11

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    Enjoying a Good Silence

    Our lives are noisy. From the moment we wake up to the blare of our clock radios, to the radio to accompany us to and from work to the television which keeps us company at home to music as a running soundtrack to our lives as we jog or run errands, our lives are filled with constant noise.

    When we doing have the noise, the sheer busyness of our schedules, our self identities wrapped up in what we do. Too many of us think that we’re indispensable, that we have to be at our jobs, at every meeting, at every volunteer group or whatever, from sun up to sundown. We run ourselves exhausted, fueled by the certainty that there is not enough time in the day to get everything done. But we try anyway. In being busy for busy’s sake, we fail to realize that much of it boils down to empty activity, ways of hiding from ourselves.

    Rather than always running around filling our lives with being busy, maybe we ought to try the underappreciated discipline of learning to be still. Our need for constant diversion fuels both our restlessness and our avoidance as we end up never attending to the things that matter most. Ultimately, we become disconnected from ourselves, God, and each other.

    Sometimes we just need to disconnect from the world. Silence is the final reduction, to be completely at rest, in solitude so that internal dialogues can best be had. Oh, we don’t want to. Think of how we punish criminals: it’s one thing to lock them up in their penal communities, but when they are too bad among themselves, we put them in solitary confinement. In the silence, you have the madness of yourself and only your inner junk to deal with. When you have to confront who you are, your fears and your doubts. In this unknowing of ourselves, we are left to deal with the depths of your heart, the emptiness, the loneliness.

    But this is a fight that must be waged if you are ever to finally know peace. Times of renewal and reflection, silence and solitude, helps us to cleanse our hearts and listen better.

    [This blog would have been a lot shorter had I just written: “Thank God Spring Break is over and my kids are back in school.”]

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